They find the bleeding form of something badly wounded floating in space. Something incredibly big, limbs and body crushed and twisted out of alignment by the impact of a past enemy.
At first, they think it's just something //designed// to bleed, to unsettle; made to take advantage of hesitation. It wouldn't be the first time enemy factions have done so. The human hindbrain reacts badly to the sight of such things, especially on such a large scale.
(They have never been on the front line of a skirmish; that's the duty of other pilots. Some they know, some they don't. It's not something that they have any particular feelings about.
They sit in the habitation lab and teach the engineering robots to handle tools, introducing new data slowly and patiently. Getting them accustomed to the world. The routine is comfortable, and their job as a technician is similarly without excitement; this is fine with them.
But they've seen enough trophies and specimens hauled back for salvage and dissection to know the face of the enemy - the enemies - in all its forms.)
But it tracks their movement with the weak swivel of its head as they circle around it, preparing to call someone who can drag it away, and they stop their hand.
An eye (it's missing one, out of four. Three now) gutters with light. It's looking at them.
A fire burns in its chest, organic vents fluttering for air (//does// it need air? they've never seen a biological frame dissected, they don't know), and it weakly unclasps its own ribcage. Tearing apart its own remains.
At least, they think so, at first. But as they float closer (they should call someone, it might be a trick, an automatic response to an enemy species), they realise it's exposing something.
It's a cockpit. (It looks like one, even if it's full of bone and muscle rather than plating.)
The look in its eye is a pleading one, they think. And it's fading fast.
It breaks the last shreds of hesitation from them. They grip onto the sides of the crude doorway, entering it, attempting to find somewhere to settle.
A cable shears through the material of the suit that protects them from the pressures of space, smashes through the helmet with surprising force.
[[ There is very little time to scream.]]
The cockpit seals. The cable plugs into the back of their neck with little trouble.
There is a white-hot flare of what might be described as 'excruciating' pain.
Logically, the cable has plugged into the nervous system directly.
Physically, it feels like being on fire from inside.
//PILOT,// says a weak voice from the depths of their mind. It echoes inside the space that has opened up to them, searching for a link.
It sounds large in a way that is difficult to describe. And it sounds like it is dying.
They lean forward, attempting to find the source, deep inside. Their helmet cracks and falls off with the sudden movement, but their lungs seem to work just fine in this strange new environment.
[[Orange fire burns in their mind.]]
It is hard
in the face of such emptiness.
(They realise they have been holding their breath too long when they cough, shudder, fight to breathe again. But it feels like anything could break the link, even that slight, essential process.
They are searching for that voice that called them. The same thing that looked at them with a broken body.
The words they speak are variations of ones they've heard over and over, from people they see every day. They may not be the correct ones, but perhaps it's the spirit of the thing that matters.
That's what they've been told, anyway. One of the people they know likes to quote such things. "Estimates are just numbers. A courageous spirit will make up for the rest!"
It had always worked for her. She came out of every battle, even ones where the odds were vastly uneven, triumphant.)
//I am your pilot.
A fresh wave of pain burns through them.
They'd forgotten it, but it comes crawling back through their veins like an unwanted sickness.
The temperature starts to rise. The heat of it makes their bones ache and their head pound; their heartbeat thuds against their chest like it wants to escape their body entirely.
There is a feeling that they could tear the cable out, stop the process, call for help and be rescued. It's not that far. Someone's always on duty.
(The voice sounds like a lost child.)
They hold on.
[[Synchronisation: Ten percent.]]
Their left eye burns, more than anything else. Their vision, what little they can process through it, is beginning to blur. Perhaps it's pain, or fever, or they're being crushed to death?
They're no longer very sure of what's happening.
(It was missing an eye)
They sit quiet anyway.
More cables begin to plug themselves in, finding points along their spine and the back of their shoulders to introduce fresh flares of pain along the arms, the legs, the torso.
(If they were more coherent, they'd remember that the pain here mirrors the injuries on this larger being.
But they are decidedly not.)
They feel hot and cold all at once. Fire spreads until the prickling heat is inescapable and writhing inside their skin. They want to tear it off, to release it.
(The memory of a crushing blow to the spine that is not theirs almost makes them sob with pain. Then the rest come in a torrent, a flood of images and feedback that almost makes them black out.)
The similarity of the input (information delivered to the pilot, data storage, something like it) keeps them afloat. It's just like training robots, maybe, watching their new footage and data.
(It is not a lot like training robots because robots did not plug cords into your nervous system. In fact it is nothing like that.
It keeps them conscious, so they cling to it. Becoming unconscious now would be bad.)
The fire in their head, the source of that voice, is stronger now.
[[Synchronisation: Fifty percent.]]
//PILOT SPECIES IS HUMAN
The question brings a flood of data. Screaming and fear. Seeing something like this on a planet, or even in a battle in space, would be terrifying.
They really shouldn't have gotten into the cockpit, in hindsight. It was a terrible idea.
But they can't back out now.
(It was hurt. They couldn't leave it.)
They're surprised to find they're not scared. Maybe that's what happens when every nerve in your body is overloaded on input. It crowds out everything else, including sensible emotions like sheer terror.
Though fear wasn't really present in the equation from the start, considering this very bad decision, to be honest. Or maybe they were afraid, but they'd ignored it.
Their heart shudders in their chest. A much bigger pulse is radiating through the cables, through the entire cockpit. They can feel it.
It's catching up to theirs.
It's the life of something much bigger that they're now holding in their hands, that is bolstering its failing heartbeat with their own. Matching it, like an orchestra following a conductor's time.
//You really are alive.//
They're all out of surprise.
//OTHER PILOT...GONE. DISCONNECTED. DEAD.
[[Synchronisation: Eighty percent.]]
The pain starts to recede, finally, and it leaves them sore all over. But the cockpit is active, lighting up, thrumming with activity.
Then their legs and arms throb, and they wince, because now that they've remembered how not feeling pain works, everything hurts again.
They consider several answers, none of them very encouraging, and settle for nothing at all. They're too exhausted to give a response.
Their left eye still stings, annoyingly. They try to open it, focusing on it, and receive a view that can only be from their new 'mecha'.
//It's staring down at itself as it regenerates its limbs, rebuilding itself from scratch. Redistributing mass from a bulkier, more muscular form to something lankier and more lightweight, healing wounds at a startlingly rapid pace as it does so.
It looks a little more human, at least where it's renewed crushed and twisted limbs, and in the curvature of the body. They're not sure how to feel about it. //
They close the eye again (then the other, normal eye) and lean back in the cockpit. That's trouble for a future version of themselves.
They can feel a larger presence, now humming with life, settle over their mind like a blanket. Looking through memories, curious as a child.
//PILOT IS ENTERING SLEEP MODE?
I WILL TAKE CARE OF THE REST//
They wonder if they need to give any orders. They hope not; they're far too tired to do so.
Darkness claims them. They fall into slumber easily.
[[Synchronisation: One hundred percent. Pilot bonding complete.]]
They wake up suddenly, still in their biological cradle.
//They were dreaming of something far bigger than themselves. Tanks of fluid, vast swathes of flesh, a gallery of bones. Coagulating into something more.
Orange fire pulses, forms into veins, nerves, reaching for a framework it understands. All around them, new life is struggling to be born.//
They open their eyes again and //the station's dock is a familiar sight. A welcome one, maybe, though they realise that maybe this is the part their new friend(?) can't help with.//
"You're smart to hang back." Their praise is casual, instinctive. They move their arm to pat the cockpit wall, like they would treat a pet or one of the robots they teach. "Um. Let me just radio. I hope the cables didn't break the suit that much, or I'm going to have to figure something else out."
But it'll be fine, they think. Probably. Or, at least, it seems docile enough, so it won't attack anyone.
They're a pilot now, whether they like it or not. They have a brief tinge of regret, though.
They really were looking forward to seeing how the next few robots were coming along.